How to read an article in Aquinas's Summa theologiae

The following post is a re-post from a blog that I once ran. It’s intended for students rather than scholars. I recently received an email from someone who has no philosophical training and is in a non-academic profession but is trying to make some headway in Aquinas. He stumbled across this old post and said that he found it very helpful. So I thought it might be worth re-posting here. I’ve made a few small changes to the original.


One of the things that professors always have to bear in mind is that what is obvious to us is not always obvious to our students, especially undergraduates. The Kantian influence on Hegel is obvious to me. The metaphysics of Platonic “participation” is obvious to me (whether it reflects how things really are is, of course, another question). The differences between Descartes and Aristotle are obvious to me. About such things we philosophy professors would probably just shrug our shoulders and say: “Of course.”

But we easily forget that more often than not undergraduates don’t inhabit the same lifeworld. These things are not obvious to them. That’s why they’re taking the class.

Among the obvious things for many philosophy (and theology) professors is how you read an article in Aquinas’s Summa. We don’t find it at all confusing, or, more precisely, we have forgotten what it is like to be a student, when so many things seem so bewildering. We have forgotten that there was a time when Aquinas wasn’t so obvious to us, or at least when his literary styles were not.

With these thoughts in mind, I thought that for the benefit of anyone who is uncertain about how to read an article in the Summa I would post the text of a handout on this topic that I have given to some of my classes (see below). Aquinas uses more or less the same format in other texts such as the De veritate, the De potentia, and his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. There are other of his texts where the format is quite different, the Compendium theologiae for example.

In the handout I also include a fictional “article” that has to do with Armando Galarraga, the former Detroit Tigers pitcher who lost his bid for a perfect game in the Summer of 2010 when umpire Jim Joyce blew a call. I just wanted to have something very short on the handout as an example and decided to make-up my own article. Since I prepared the handout right after the Galarraga incident, it seemed like a good topic. It’s dumb but it serves the purpose.


How to Read an Article in Aquinas’s Summa theologiae

I. Basic Parts of an Article

Aquinas’s “articles” in the Summa theologiae and elsewhere usually have the following structure:

1. Question

2. Objections

3. “On the contrary” (Sed contra)

4. “I respond that” (Respondeo)

5. Replies to the Objections

Below is a made-up article to give you an idea:


Article 1: Did Armando Galarraga get a raw deal?

Objection 1: It would seem that Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga did not get a raw deal when first base umpire Jim Joyce called Jason Donald safe at first and spoiled Galarraga’s bid for a perfect game, for MLB commissioner Bud Selig has argued that human error is a part of baseball.

Objection 2: Further, if anyone got a raw deal it was Jim Joyce because, as Augustine says (De stultitia, II. 3): “It is not he who is misjudged who is despised by the fans but he who misjudges.”

On the contrary, Tigers manager Jim Leyland says: “The players are human, the umpires are human, the managers are human,” which we can take to mean that everyone always gets a raw deal by virtue of being human. Hence, Galarraga got a raw deal because he is a player and all players are human as has been said.

I answer that, “raw deal” can be predicated both of the cause and of the effect. It can be predicated of the cause insofar as the cause is what is said to bring the raw deal about and it can be predicated of the effect insofar as the effect is the recipient of the raw deal. We conclude, then, that as recipient of the raw deal, it is certain that Galarraga got a raw deal.

Reply to Objection 1: While human error may be a part of baseball, this does not prove that Galarraga did not get a raw deal but only that raw deals are a part of baseball.

Reply to Objection 2: There is nothing to prevent he who is misjudged and he who misjudges from both getting raw deals as a result of the misjudgment. Moreover, De stultitia is spuriously attributed to Augustine.

II. Explanation of the Different Parts of the Article


The articles begin with a question about a particular issue. In the above example the question has to do with whether Galarraga was the victim of an injustice.


Before giving his own answer to the question Aquinas presents the answers that others have given or answers that might be given to the question.

On the Contrary (Sed Contra)

Here Aquinas presents another answer that someone has given or that might be given to the question that is in opposition to the answers given in the Objections.

I Answer That (Respondeo)

Now Aquinas offers his own answer to the question. Quite often, but not always, Aquinas will disagree with the views expressed in the Objections. Also quite often Aquinas seems to be in agreement with the “On the contrary” even if he does not respond explicitly to it. However, he does not always completely agree with the “On the contrary.”

Replies to Objections

Here Aquinas responds directly to each of the answers given in the Objections. Often Aquinas does not directly respond to the answer given in the “On the contrary.” In other works, such as the De veritate, Aquinas will include not just one “On the Contrary” but a whole set of Objections to the Contrary after the first set of Objections. In most cases he responds to all of these Objections to the Contrary too.


The above explanation is evidently very basic. If you are interested in a more sophisticated explanation, have a look at Otto Bird, “How to Read an Article of the Summa,” The New Scholasticism 27 (1953): 129-159.

By the way, you may have noticed in my made-up article I mention Augustine’s De stultitia in Objection 2. This also is made-up. As far as I know, Augustine never wrote anything by that title. Also, as far as I know, Augustine never said: “It is not he who is misjudged who is despised by the fans but he who misjudges.” I add this disclaimer only so as not to upset any Augustine scholars.